This week I judged about 25 entries for a fiction-writing contest at an upcoming writers’ conference at which I’m also doing a workshop. My task was to name first-place and second-place choices.

I found 2 that I could honestly say deserved a “win.” Now, each of these 25 or so writers did the best they could. They imagined, and revised, and polished, and sent in their story. I’m sure not all of them expected to win, but I’m equally sure that most of them thought they had a chance—otherwise why submit?

Twice a week, I judge submissions to my blog, Flogging the Quill, on whether or not I would turn the first page. I’d say that, overall, I turn the page on maybe 3% of the submissions. I should note that FtQ’s readers never agree with me 100%. They are frequently far more generous than I am.

Many of us have faced the toughest judges in the business, literary agents. I think my take on what is good storytelling/writing comes close to theirs—I’ve judged over 600 opening chapters for the blog, and, let me tell you, your eye becomes quickly trained to see what works and what doesn’t work. Agents and editors will tell you that they can usually reach a yes/no decision on the first page. I believe them.

So I got to thinking: what are the criteria in my mind that entries needed to meet in order to be successful storytelling? Are they the same criteria you use? And do we apply the same criteria to our own writing?

The main criterion isn’t, really, good writing. That’s the price of entry, the foundation upon which a good story can be built. You don’t get any credit for good language/grammar/etc. from me or an agent or an editor. It makes a “yes” decision possible, but that’s all.

Engagement

I guess my primary criterion is “engagement.” Am I engaged/captured/gripped by the words and deeds on the page, by the emotional reaction they create in me? The fundamental factors that work toward creating engagement for me are:

Story. Something is happening, a story is taking place. It’s in a place I can see, and there are people doing things. Story is something happening. If nothing much is happening I’m outta there, no matter the quality of the writing.

A scene: That’s how a good writer shows what is happening, what I call an “immediate” scene. It’s not a summary of information, it’s not exposition, it’s not what happened then, it is what is happening now. In a scene. With movement, dialogue, and things that cause that lovely “what happens next” tension in me.

Voice: I frequently read where agents name “voice” as the number one thing that pulls them in. I can see that. Voice can translate into a personality of the story, and we all react to likeable personalities. There have been times when the voice in a piece got me to turn the page even though there wasn’t high tension in the narrative. Voice can be a hugely engaging factor.

But if a narrative lacks a distinct voice, does it fail? Will it not engage a reader? I don’t think so. Straightforward, workmanlike writing that creates a lively scene with fascinating things happening will serve just fine.

Of the two entries that I voted for in the contest, the first-place winner started with a first-person narration, a fine way to introduce voice. Even though the third paragraph turned to a brief visit with something in the past, it was still part of a scene, and the opening paragraphs established a strong story question that made me want to know what would happen next. So all the elements were there—a scene, voice, and story.

The second-place story was science fiction and also opened with something happening. It used good description to quickly introduce three interesting characters—one alien splashing down on Earth and two people impacted by it–and raise the story question: what will happen between these characters? The writing had a clear, confident voice, too.

As an editor, I’m also a judge of every line and word in a manuscript, and I can tell you that critiquing those hundreds of blog submissions and editing a number of full-length manuscripts have sharpened my eye for my own fiction. They have created within me a restless, impatient demand for good stuff and nothing but good stuff that is just as sharply judgmental of my own writing as it is of others.

What about you? Has judging (in one way or another) sharpened your inner sense of whether or not your own writing has, indeed, got the good stuff?

For what it’s worth.

Image by gruenemann.

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.